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genetic breakthrough could alleviate one of the most pressing problems facing the planet’s rapidly growing population. Scientists at the University of California, Riverside have made plants tolerant of

poisonous aluminium by tweaking a single gene, which may allow crops to thrive in the 40%—50% of the Earth’s soils currently rendered toxic by the metal. In Current Biology, biochemist Paul Larsen writes that he has identified a gene in Arabidopsis — a flower used as a model organism in basic plant research — that affects plants’ sensitivity to aluminum. When the gene is modified, seedlings that would normally have died instead flourished. There’s no guarantee that the tweak will prove successful and safe, but if it does, it could provide food for millions. “It was always believed that once aluminium got into the tissue” of a non-tolerant species, said Larsen, “it was ‘game over’ for the root. It would accumulate toxic effects, and wouldn’t grow. Here you change one gene, reduce the function of one protein, and all of a sudden you have a plant that can, for the most part, thrive in an aluminium-toxic environment. It was shocking.” Larsen suggests a workaround: Engineer plants that express the modified gene only in their roots, not their leaves. If that works, the plants will still need to be proven safe but Larsen is hopeful that modifying the gene will have few other effects. He is currently trying to patent the technique, and said that he’ll make it available to researchers in the developing world. “I don’t expect to make any money off it,” he told Current Biology. “I’d like it to trickle down to the people who need it”.

16 CNBC EUROPEAN BUSINESS I NOVEMBER 2008

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